This is a picture of me and my son from a few years ago. Last week, it was his birthday. Halfway through his birthday morning, he was filled with disappointment and sadness and laid on his bed and told me about it.
His presents weren’t as he expected. He felt disappointed and wanted to take many of them back. He felt a bit lonely, especially as his siblings were in school and he was home without a playmate. His day didn’t feel sufficiently special and he felt a little unnoticed.
He was feeling that empty, hollow feeling that can come after anticipating something so greatly for so many months, only to feel let down, like a deflated balloon, once the much anticipated day is gone.
I did nothing but hold him and listen to him. He’s my fourth child, and I’ve had a lot of practice at this point. I didn’t try to talk him out of his feelings or try to get him to be positive or, even worse, make him feel selfish or ungrateful for being so unappreciative. (Of course I’ve done plenty of all of these things throughout my 18 years as a parent, and I have learned: it does not work.)
After a while, he went back to playing with his new toys. Forty five minutes later, while putting together his new lego set, I heard him say quietly to himself, “I love my birthday presents.”
I smiled to myself, because I saw that he was able to come around to the other side of his feelings, without any force on my part, without my making him “see the light” or rubbing his nose in it or redirecting.
And I felt proud because of the small part that I had played in the story, and I felt whole because the real me under my human conditioning had ventured forth to support him and be at his side, and I felt touched by the mystery of presence and how it moves and works and grows and expands and loves.
One of my teachers, Dr. Gordon Neufeld, says that the deepest love we can offer one another is “the invitation to exist in our presence.” When I first heard this phrase, it brought tears to my eyes, because I recognized how much I longed to extend this invitation – both to others and to the others within my own heart.
And I recognized how I often fail to offer and receive it.
It’s vulnerable to stand up for sadness: to declare that it’s okay to be unhappy. Our culture has so little room for sadness and disappointment, and there is so much pressure to be positive and upbeat.
If you carry a measure of sadness in your heart, as I do, this can make you feel like you don’t belong. Like there is no invitation for the whole of your being to exist. It’s a profound and lonely separation.
For much of my life, I’ve been ashamed of and afraid of sadness, in particular, for the sadness in my heart. And so I’ve been afraid of sadness in others, too. In response, I spent decades trying to self help my way to happiness – to find a way to eradicate this sadness.
I’ve tried to self help those around me into happiness, too, because I also believed I was responsible for their happiness: for my children’s. For my own. For my husband’s. For every person I touched. I was like a cruise ship director, hustling about, sweating over every detail trying to make everything just so, just right.
So there was no room – no invitation – for their unhappiness or disappointment or sadness either.
Like yeast working its way through dough, life’s pain has slowly transformed my heart and released this burden to make things happen and make things right and make things happy. There’s a greater freedom now – to feel unhappy, disappointed, frustrated – an invitation for the full width and breadth of our humanity – that, ironically, has brought the peace I sought in happiness.
In making room for my son’s experience, I also had to make room for mine: to accept and allow the feelings of disappointment and frustration that arose in me when I realized his birthday – the birthday I had spent considerable time and effort trying to make special – wasn’t meeting his expectations or creating the happy memories that I desired.
Like my son, when I made room for my emotions, they moved on their own accord. Through mystery, through grace, I was able to let go of my own desire to control and my desire for him to be happy and to let my disappointment rest in the ocean of awareness.
What I most wanted was connection, and I could find connection both in my son’s joy and in his disappointment, in just being with him. When I hold this yearning in my hands, I’m able to come around to the other side and feel the invitation, both for me and for him. As I held my son in his tears, I recognized: This birthday is enough. He is enough. I am enough. The disappointment and let down is enough. It is okay.
As Ruth Moody sings, “We are still whole.”
There is a place within us, deep within the heart, that arises from our soul. It is our life force, and it exists in you and me, as it also exists in every living thing.
It is this force – this grace – that moves us, that grows us, that stretches us, that transforms us: that changes our thoughts and emotions and minds and hearts. It’s what moved in the heart of my son and moved him from disappointment to contentment. And it’s what moved him to contentment within the whole – within the mix of sorrow and disappointment and joy and celebration that is life.
The beauty I have learned, is that this life force is not in my hands, but rests in something greater, and it is not something I have to direct or flow or force. It is merely something I open to, and allow to move through me, like a channel, like water running clear in a stream.
When I sat with my son that morning in his unhappiness, I didn’t do anything. I didn’t try to persuade him of anything. I just sat with him. I simply met him where he was and made room for his experience and offered that invitation to show up, as is.
Philosopher and writer Beatrice Bruteau says it like this:
We cannot require people to love one another, and trying to coerce them to act as if they did does not work satisfactorily, for it seems to breed the very hostilities it sets out to contain. We have resorted to exhortation, persuasion, enticement, encouragement. But these methods have not been very successful, either.
So let us try understanding. Perhaps if we can clearly grasp with our intelligent consciousness what kind of being we profoundly are and something of what we may become, we will be able to experience that miraculous shift, that metanoia, that turns the world inside out.”
As poet Judyth Hill says, we “make peace with our listening.” The miraculous shift that turns the world inside out is the shift that occurs when we simply make room, when we offer the invitation. When we allow what is here to arise and to simply have space to exist, to move with the ebb and flow of the river of life.
When I try to force my son to love something he does not love, to feel a happiness he does not feel, to feel a gratitude he does not have, I do not make space for him to exist. It is a subtle violence to his heart and soul. He may do a song and dance to keep me close, to keep my love; he may start to shut down parts of himself so that he can exist. But, oh, oh – the price. At what cost?
We do this same violence to ourselves, and to each other. And we, too, start to shut down parts of ourselves so we can exist in the light of our own and each other’s love. And we, too, feel the price, and the cost.
To paraphrase Mary Oliver, “life calls to us each day, offering us an invitation,” a lap that is as large as the world, a wholeness that contains everything. There is room for you here, it says – room for all of you. It is a vast and profound mercy. It is big enough to hold all our emotions, thoughts, selves, experiences, and feelings. Like a well worn living room – where you feel comfortable getting the rug dirty and putting your feet up on the table – we find rest in this hospitality.
And I will waste my heart on fear no more
I will find a secret bell and make it ring
And let the rest be washed up on the shore
They can’t be tamed, these wilder things
No they can’t be tamed, these wilder things
Come, let us make room for the wilder things within our lives, and within the lives of those we love. Come, let us “waste our hearts on fear no more,” as John O’ Donohue originally wrote it. Come, let us open to and find rest in the invitation.